Saturday, December 15, 2012

Silent Killers

A silent killer stalks our woods and fields, meadows and hedgerows. It strikes quickly and efficiently and shows no mercy. Its predations account for a near-mass slaughter of certain native creatures. This is an introduced predator and we introduced it. And we bear responsibility for its existence.

By now I can hear readers thinking, “Oh, my, what terrible creature might this be?” Well, the answer may come as a surprise. The introduced predator is the common housecat, gone wild. The feral cat population continues to swell as the exurban push continues.

With every new house that sprouts up on formally wild land or agricultural land that was sold out of inability to pay continually-rising property taxes, the number of housecats roaming those places increases exponentially. And when that happens, the number of native bird and small mammal species diminishes accordingly.

My interest in this topic was piqued by the decreasing number of ruffed grouse, woodcock and also, snowshoe hares on my woodland property. It took me a while to figure out what the problem was. I blamed fishers, weasels, foxes, bobcats and coyotes. But coyotes don’t catch too many game birds. They instead, concentrate upon small mammals. And while coyotes are a relative newcomer to these parts, foxes, bobcats and the rest were here well before we were. Something different had to account for the sudden slackening in small game and game bird numbers.

And that something was housecats. As more and more people moved out my way (a large agricultural landowner had gone out of business and subdivided their land…after cutting all the useful timber), I began seeing more and more housecats in the woods. And only shortly thereafter, the small game population went south.

In addition to the heavy toll these feral cats take on small game, they also kill songbirds. I can no longer maintain a bird feeder, since these cats hide in nearby bushes, patiently waiting to leap on any ground-feeding bird that might chance to pick up a sunflower seed that had dropped to the ground.

These cats are of two types; fully wild and part-wild. The fully-wild cats have litters outdoors and the offspring grow up as genuine wild animals. The other variety is cats that people feed sometimes and might even let in their houses on occasion. But that’s as far as it goes. These animals have the run of the woods and only show up at home for a meal or when bitter cold weather prompts them to go for creature comforts. They, of course, are not properly cared for in that the irresponsible owners do not have them vaccinated against rabies, distemper or any of the other diseases that cats are prone to.

Maine law states that cats, like dogs, must be under the owner’s immediate supervision when off the owner’s property. But of course no one bothers with obeying that law. I have even had cat owners scoff at the suggestion that they keep their cats home.

So who is to blame here? Well, the cats are animals and simply follow their animal nature. So the fault clearly lies with the owners.

Sadly, I don’t see any help for this situation. Perhaps some day more people will exercise responsibility in this regard, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. 

By the way, the mystery item shown in my "What's It?" quiz posted a while ago is the interior skeleton of a common squid, also known as a "pen." These are of a translucent, cartiliginous material and they are found inside the body, or "tube" of a squid. 

Nobody got the answer right, by the way. 

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